WASHINGTON — AS election season '96 begins, President Clinton is serenely cruising the political high road. He's talking about unity, faith, and personal responsibility - while most GOP candidates for his office are yelling about each other's ''deceits'' and ''distortions'' as they struggle to survive the campaign's early votes.
It's a reelection strategy that's almost as old as the republic. Incumbents try to appear statesmanlike, powerful, the leader of the land: Franklin D. Roosevelt, for instance, kicked off one of his campaigns from the deck of a US Navy warship.
This above-the-fray approach doesn't always work. George Bush tried it to little avail against Mr. Clinton himself. But if nothing else, it allows incumbents to try to shape a more positive image for themselves before their final opponent is nominated and the real struggle begins.
''We should not use elections to divide,'' said Clinton at an Iowa campaign rally last weekend. ''We should [use] elections to move the country forward.''
Clinton's high-minded campaign strategy was strongly in evidence as he swung through Iowa in advance of yesterday's caucuses. It was also demonstrated in Washington in recent days, as Vice President Al Gore further defined the cautiously optimistic economy message the administration hopes to carry into battle later in the year.
In Iowa, Republicans were slashing at each other all across the state: Publisher Steve Forbes accused Sen. Bob Dole of ''deceitful practices.'' Sen. Phil Gramm said Pat Buchanan hopes ''the world goes away,'' and so on. Against this background, the president appeared to try and accomplish three goals: Fire up his base of Democratic voters; ensure a decent turnout for Democratic caucuses on Monday night; and further define himself as a New Democrat instead of an Old Liberal.
(Results of Iowa's caucuses were not available at time of writing. Full coverage will appear in tomorrow's Monitor.)
''You need a government that is less bureaucratic and does fewer stupid things, but is still strong,'' Clinton told an enthusiastic crowd in Mason City, Iowa.
Another aspect of the statesman strategy is an attempt to gain as much credit as possible for federal money spent in key battleground states. In Iowa, Clinton talked often of Washington's response to the 1993 floods in the Midwest and had brunch with Iowans whose lives had been rebuilt with US government help. A trip to Oregon and Washington State, scheduled as of this writing, will further allow President Clinton to emphasize the federal role in response to widespread flood destruction.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, D.C., Mr. Gore was previewing the administration's overall economic message. As it heads into the fall campaign, the Clinton administration faces a tough political task in the economy: It wants to emphasize the nation's relative prosperity, yet still appear sympathetic to the millions of middle-class voters who feel they are falling behind in a new winner-take-all business environment.
''It's hard to talk about the good things without giving the impression that good is good enough,'' noted Gore at a Monitor breakfast on Feb. 9.
Thus the new economic message might be summed up as ''We're doing OK - but we could do a lot better''.
Widely publicized corporate layoffs are making millions of workers feel nervous in their jobs, noted the vice president. Yet fewer Americans notice the job creation that has gone on over the last four years, often in smaller and mid-size firms whose fortunes are tied to exports.
Overall, 8 million more Americans have jobs now than when Clinton took office, said Gore. The value of corporate America, as measured by stock prices, has soared.
But inequality remains a problem. The administration plans to make raising the minimum wage a campaign issue this fall, said Gore, in light of the continued earnings growth at the top of the economic ladder. Only the top 20 percent of US citizens, as measured by income, have done increasingly well in recent years, said Gore.
Because of inflation ''the minimum wage will this year fall to a 40-year low,'' said Gore. ''The American people, by a 70 percent margin, say they want it increased.''
Will this message really work for the Clinton team? In the end, communications finesse might be less important than the immediate state of the economy, which threatens to slide into recession. And the eventual GOP nominee may well be able to survive the blows of his fellows, and knock Clinton off his Rose Garden perch and into a tough fight. Clinton, after all, did the same thing to Bush.